When building anything of importance, the early stages typically set the tone for what is to follow. Take a house for example, it is critical that the foundations are laid correctly as if they are not it is nearly impossible for a structurally sound house (the ultimate objective) to be produced.

Recruitment is very similar. The first few weeks of the search are critical in ensuring the tone is set, and the foundations are laid in such a way that results in a great hire being made.

Many companies operate a PSL (preferred supplier list) of contingent agencies. These agencies typically work in the same way as all the car crash claim companies you see on the TV adverts i.e. “no win, no fee”. I understand the appeal of this to companies looking to recruit, it is logical to assume having a list of agencies who will all go to market with your role is a great way of assuring that your talent pool see that you are recruiting. However, if these foundations aren’t laid properly then rest assured, the house will collapse in the end.

The problem comes in that most of the roles we speak to clients about are candidate short, and the fight to attract the best people is becoming increasingly difficult and time consuming. If these roles weren’t difficult to fill, then why would companies use agencies at all, right? In this situation, where the number of candidates locally with the right skills is low, it is vital that they are approached in the right way and are delivered the most compelling message about your opportunity.

But what are the main problems experienced when that PSL of agencies go to market. These are the main issues, and the difference between contingent and retained in the first few weeks of a search.

What is being said?


Contingent agencies typically operate by spreading risk, the “no win, no fee” approach makes this essential as working on only a handful of vacancies alongside several other agencies just doesn’t work commercially. A contingent recruiter can be working anything from 10-20 vacancies at a given time, this obviously comes with its limitations, as the time spent to fully understand the role and company must be limited to a short briefing telephone call.

The problem with this is that in talent short markets, with the best candidates you typically get one shot to engage them. Companies work tirelessly to build a strong employer value proposition (EVP) that resonates with their target audience, and all too often this isn’t utilised or delivered in the right way by contingent agencies.


Retained agencies usually see the first couple of weeks on any assignment as the research phase. We spend as much time as is required to fully immerse ourselves in our client’s business, seeking to understand everything from the functional requirements of the role to the culture and environment and what type of person would “fit in” best. Importantly, we also look to fully understand our clients EVP and how they would like us to deliver that message to ensure every candidate is approached consistently and delivered the same message.

Unfortunately, if the above is the case then the likelihood is that the role hasn’t been filled. So, what is the next step? Typically, more agencies will be engaged – whether contingent or retained they will all face the same problem. Who has been approached by the PSL so far? and like discussed above what has been said?

And who to? 


Contingent agencies are in competition against the rest of the PSL and this naturally results in a fastest finger first approach. With most of their work focussing on the active market, candidates on job boards or are set to “open to new opportunities” on LinkedIn can end up being approached by several agencies about the same role, all delivering slightly different messages – I am sure you have all been in that position of receiving the same CV from several agencies….. let the battle over candidate ownership commence! This leaves a situation where nobody knows who has been approached, as the scattergun method makes keeping a track of this impossible.

The issue unfortunately gets continuously worse as the process continues. If the desired results aren’t being seen, typically more agencies are engaged who are initially faced with the problem of not knowing who has already been approached, but they then compound the problem by re approaching and once again… delivering a different message.


Retained agencies will typically spend time drawing up a target list of candidates that meet the brief set out at the start. They will then systematically approach every candidate with a consistent message and document responses and interest.

The process is typically transparent, ensuring that you know not only who has been approached but also their responses. The intelligence gained at this stage can be extremely beneficial in informing strategy in areas such as salary, benefits and EVP.

Based on the above, my experience shows that “dipping your toe in the water” can be doing far more harm than good. It is very important that you consider at the very start which approach is best suited to the vacancy, and only engage the PSL of contingent agencies if the role is either less critical, or easier to fill. If you do engage contingent agencies on a role you think is better suited to retained, you are potentially making life more difficult and extending the length of the process.

For more information on the difference between Retained and Contingent recruitment please see our previous blog - https://www.collingwoodsearch.co.uk/our-insights/recruiting-retaining-talent/key-differences-between-retained-executive-search-and-contingency-recruitment-agencies/